Living with Paranoia
By Tom Kamara
Oct 25, 2000
The fascinating aspect of today's Liberian politics is its unorthodoxy and glaring contradictions. Back in 1992, rebel chief Charles Taylor told journalists that, "Every step I took in this war I first informed the Americans." But despite this alleged partnership and "memorandum of understanding," Washington has opted to distance itself from now President Taylor, arguably because of his horrific involvement in Sierra Leone's war of terror for that country's diamonds, along with his too-obvious lack of vision.
The much-expected bilateral aid has been denied no matter how loud Taylor cried for American generosity. In the 1980s, he and others plundered America's millions given to the junta his rebels later overthrew. Now, in place of the expected reward for the economic malaise he created and the dismantling of key industries, selling industrial equipment to countries like Burkina Faso to finance his war and swell his pockets, the Americans are nowhere marching in with the millions. Liberia, founded by freed American slaves, is perhaps the only South-Saharan country whose officials are officially barred from entering the United States.
Perceived enemies are everywhere. At the dedicatory program of the newly renovated boys dormitory at the University of Liberia, the President told faculty members, students, journalists, etc. recently that the arrested and tortured Britain's Channel 4 team had planned to poison him through their "sophisticated Camera that would have poisoned him had he come into contract with it" during their aborted documentary in the country. He said he "would have gotten cancer from the camera within a few weeks following the departure of the journalists." He further accused the Americans and the British, along with some of his cabinet ministers, of plotting to assassinate him. Believing in these imaginary plots, his luxury homes are left empty at night as he opts for more dingy hideouts in the elusive search for safety to save his neck.
American visa restrictions imposed on the president, his family, supporters, officials and their families have led to a stampede of government functionaries replacing their diplomatic passports with ordinary ones. "Some officials are changing their names for an American visa", says a source within the Ministry of Information. "The diplomatic passport, once a symbol of status and influence, has become a burden, a criminal instrument. The prevailing feeling among ordinary Liberians is that the restrictions are fair, since all of us now have nowhere to run when hell breaks lose. We are all inside", the source added on condition of anonymity. Taylor's main wife and First Lady, (since he has more than one) in the US before the restrictions were announced, is reported to have told confidantes she intends to take time off from high-tension Monrovia and relax in America. The Government said it has stopped about 16 Americans from entering the country since the visa war began with Washington, accused of failing to develop Liberia.
In heightened paranoia, Taylor has also now accused the Americans of undermining his authoritarian regime by helping its victims---independent grassroots groups struggling to survive in a harsh economic and political environment. He believes American assistance to these groups is intended to pave the path for dumping him come the next elections in 2003 since, in all fairness, the direct aid programs expose his banality before his people. Nevertheless, the president trusts his people. If they could sing "you killed my ma; you killed my pa [but] I will vote you", he is certain, as he announced, that the "Liberian people understand" this alleged American conspiracy against him. This conspiracy was reported by one of the country's papers, The News, in a front-page headline "Taylor Accuses US of Sabotage":
"President Charles Taylor has accused the United States of 'covert intelligence activities aimed at rendering his Government unpopular.
"The Liberian leader said the US covert intelligence activities are being designed and orchestrated through the 'Ambassador's fund,' which the American Ambassador provides to local NGOs as U.S. Government's contribution to Liberia's national recovery program.
"Taylor said the aim of the Ambassador's fund is intended to render Liberians weak and submissive so that by the next general elections in 2003, Liberians would be teleguided to vote against his government.
"But he said, Liberians know 'what is happening,' and (sic) apparent view that his Government will win majority votes during the next elections.
"Describing the US grants as 'dashing out few thousands of dollars here,' President Taylor indicated that Liberians should not be weakened and carried away by these small grants. He also accused the US Government of keeping Liberia down by stalling infrastructure development. The Liberian leader then blamed the African desk at the Us State Department for allegedly passing on misinformation to the Clinton."
Another paper reported that "President Taylor indicated that instead of assisting the Liberian Government to enhance democracy in the country, the US Government is giving out small grants to grass-root Liberians with the view that Liberians would turn against his administration during the next general elections in 2003." But the ambassador remains confident of the rightness of the assistance program:
"People come to us and say 'we have mobilized resources to build a school, but we do not have the money to buy materials to complete the building of the school. We need roof.' So we provide them money," he told the BBC.
Tying the country's reconstruction to American generosity, as if Taylor's electoral platform of building a castle in the sky was written in the White House, is a deception that has been circulating and given some respectability despite its idiocy. The London-based New African and its Ghanaian editor known for unabashed Taylor-Sankoh sympathies, recently reasoned that:
"Why Taylor is being picked on is not difficult to fathorn(sic). It has less to do with British and American love for security and democracy in West Africa but more to do with Taylor's close ties with Libyan leader Gaddafi and Burkina Faso Blaise Compaore. The unholy axis---Monrovia, Ouagadougou, Tripoli---has always irked Washington. Insiders say before Liberia's elections in 1997, Washington asked Taylor to publicly denounce Gaddafi in exchange for American support. He refusedBut for France, a big supporter of both Taylor and Compaore, Washington and London would probably achieve [the] of crushing the unholy alliance."
Thus following the New African's verdict, it is a question of honor among like-minded comrades prepared to keep promises at any cost for maintaining and sustaining their "unholy alliance." Taylor has kept his promises to Col. Gaddafi by, among others, tapping Liberia's meager resources to pay millions of dollars of debt for arms used in the killing and destruction process. Although Liberians protested Taylor's seizure of $26m to offset payments for reducing them to beggars, his will prevailed. He told his subjects that by electing him president, they endorsed the payment of debts that made him president.
And he was right! Liberians knew his record of theft and plunder past and present. Yet they lined up behind him in a true manifestation of a people having a leader they deserve. The hypocrisy and stupidity however come in when the Liberians insist that America must develop their country, and that bilateral aid is mandatory. Not even Libya, who helped impose poverty and now playing the role of a godfather, has opted for bilateral aid to its newfound colony. The few projects Tripoli has chosen to finance, such as the renovation of a couple of run-down schools, have been implemented directly on a people to people basis just as the Americans have done. Sources in Monrovia say the Libyans are extremely contemptuous and suspicious of their new subjects regarding honesty when it comes to finance. Thus despite complaints and demands for money from various Government agencies to implement the Libyan projects, Gaddafi's men have selected to hire private contractors without similar anti-American protests of offering "peanuts" from Taylor.
Nevertheless, Taylor's fears of the Ambassador's Fund as catalyst for opening his people's ears and eyes are genuine. The luxurious lifestyle he and his cronies adopt, his insensitivity to his electorates' plight, the mountain of unfulfilled promises all vs. the result-yielding grassroots projects financed by the Ambassador only help to indicate the alternatives available under prudent and result-oriented individuals.
Were Ambassador Bismark Myrick a Liberian contesting free and fair elections with Taylor as a challenger, there is absolutely no doubts Myrick would win a landslide. The American's people to people approach, with funds going directly to target groups instead of corrupt sharks in a gangster government, is a terrifying model that unveils the inhumanity of Taylor's paradigm--- pomp and pageantry in poverty and empty promises. So he is already crying foul before the game can commence even if the Ambassador is not a contender. Similar people to people self-help projects undertaken by the Opposition leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf were closed down after Taylor's thugs ransacked project offices and ran staff out of the country. It is clear that the President's goal is to keep the population dependent on his looted largesse as insurance for loyalty. He sees economic self-reliance, whether on individual or collective basis, as threat to his authority. During the 1997 elections, he distributed free food and threw bundles of Liberian dollars at scrambling, destitute people, inducing them to believe the easy life of plenty ahead once he was made president. But once in office, he charged them with laziness and dependence, broke their shacks, and sent them home in unsafe rural areas to "develop their country."
In all this blame throwing, theft and economic mismanagement are escalating at an unstoppable speed. Remains of the iron ore mining German-owned Bong Mining Company, which Taylor personally looted during the war, have been given to cronies as scrap for export. Although the ceremonial Minister of Justice fruitlessly objected, the President's Americo-Liberian cronies, interested in the financial aspects of politics, have received his direct permission to sell what they consider scrap. Low cost housing facilities built in the 70s have been sold to shady European entities with warnings that dwellers will be forcibly evicted. Other state properties have been turned over to the Libyans under the umbrella of "privatization." Forests are disappearing without any program of reforestation. Despite protests from a member of the lapdog legislature, dubious laws aimed at legitimizing this unrivaled plunder have been passed sanctioning the economic decay. Without the capacity to understand the long-term economic impact on the impoverished country, the population is made to believe that the international community, the Americans, the Press, the exiled Opposition, local human rights groups, are the real culprits in stalling development.
And to forestall any challenge to his coveted presidency, Taylor has indicted key exiled opponents on frivolous charges of treason. He has ruled that the Americans and the British will not be allowed to determine the fairness of his elections. But his paranoia is so entrenched that he prefers the electorate to "understand" that the Americans are hurting them by financing their self-help projects. They will understand that keeping him as their plunderer is far more honorable than accepting American help to help themselves even as their and President lives in his lies and luxury of accelerated development once he was made king.
Indeed, Liberians, by their nature, are understanding, will understand, and will accept the logic of their President.